It's time to rock the lecture boat

January 17, 2003

Throw all those notes overboard, says Nathan Abrams. Student-centred seminars are the way forward.

Many lecturers compare their lectures to a voyage of discovery. The lecturer is the navigator and the students the crew. But what happens when the captain jumps ship? Can students still find their way?

I was recently employed to replace a colleague for a semester-long history course. Encouraged to ditch writing lectures on a topic that was not my specialism, I came up with a two-hour seminar, based on assigned reading, and a longer secondary reading list. Students were to kick off with a 20-minute assessed oral group presentation, followed by discussion. My job would be to facilitate this discussion, keep it within the parameters of the course, make sure that everyone was involved, bring up anything that had been missed and, finally, point out other ways of considering the material. The aim was to instil active learning, where the students discover material on their own.

At first, things went well. Students turned up to class. For the most part, they had done the reading and nearly all of them contributed to the discussion.

But after about the fourth week, complaints began to drift in. They were wide ranging and it was hard to discern the underlying point. After a week of reflection, it occurred to me that, unused to such a model, students were expressing their feelings of being unguided through a variety of other quibbles. It seemed they wanted a return to the old format of the lecturer giving them the notes for 50 minutes, followed by another 50 minutes of seminar where, no doubt, some of them could hide.

My centring on students had put them in the firing line. The onus was on them to do the work and preparation. It required confidence to speak in class without fear of being wrong or looking stupid. A big complaint was that the seminars were full of opinions and short on facts. During one seminar a student, when challenged on what he thought, said: "Oh no, you're going to make me do that thing I hate." "Which is what?" I asked. "Have an opinion," he replied.

I tried to impress on the students that in a subject such as history, most "facts" are open to interpretation and most opinions and interpretations are valid if based on supporting evidence. But many students are still too concerned with the getting the "right" opinion, usually what the lecturer thinks, as if this is the way to get a first. This "cult of the expert" can be hard to break.

I started to feel as if I was swimming against the tide with my student-centred seminars. But I stuck with it, and by my final sessions students were telling me they were enjoying the opportunity to talk more freely rather than to simply sit and listen. One student said: "These are the best tutorials I've ever had."

The nature of academic-student interaction is already changing because of technology and the expansion of student numbers. Most university administrations still stick to a rigid timetabling culture based on the traditional one-hour lecture/one-hour seminar model. If the first hour is in a fixed-seat lecture hall, any other teaching format is near impossible. Until universities remove fixed and staggered-seating lecture halls, many innovations to get greater participation will not be easy.

The introduction of wireless networks, although a few years off on UK campuses, is touted as a breakthrough in getting more, albeit online, interaction. But it also allows academics and students to surf the internet from anywhere on campus. This has already posed a problem for professors in the US, who complain they are vying with laptops to retain students'

attention during lectures and classes. One professor at a Texas law school in 2001 was so incensed at students' inattentiveness that he climbed up a ladder in class to disconnect the wireless transmitter. By 2002, he had banned students from using laptops in class.

Here in the UK, though, the main battle is still to get basic equipment into a classroom. As for ordering new books or other resources, forget it.

The sea change with my students came through talking. When things came to a head, I explained my motives. The students realised I was not going to back down. The key to successful innovation lies not just with students but also with lecturers and university administrators, who need to reconsider how learning takes place. They, too, might decide to abandon lectures and introduce more active learning and more discussion. I, for one, plan to continue my experiment and to carry on "jumping ship".

Nathan Abrams is a part-time history lecturer in London.

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